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    Salem Witch Trials

    | Profile | Puritanism | Trials in Salem | Trials in Europe | Chronology | Links | Bibliography |

    I. Profile

    1. Name: The Salem Witch Trials
    2. Religious Group: Puritans
    3. Group Leader: Cotton Mather (during the witch trials)
    4. Date: 1692
    5. Location: Salem, Massachusettes
    6. Prominent Figures: Magistrates John Hawthorne and Jonathan Corwin, Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Proctor, John Proctor, Abigail Hobbs, Bridget Bishop, Sir William Phips, Samuel Parris, Tituba, Cotton Mather

    II. Background on Puritanism

    Puritanism is a Christian faith which originated in England during the early seventeenth century. The ideals which separate Puritans from other Christians include their strict belief in predestination. This term refers to the idea that God has previously chosen those who will be saved, and an individual can do nothing to change this status. The Puritan Covenant of Grace calls for all Puritans to be actively faithful. The Covenant of Works is the belief that those who follow God's moral codes will be blessed with eternal life.

    The Puritans split from the Church of England in 1633. When William Laud became the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the new beliefs he brought were unacceptable to those members who sought to "purify" the Church. These new beliefs included emphasis on individual acceptance or rejection of God's grace, toleration for a variety of religious beliefs, and the incorporation of "high church" symbols. 1 The Puritans wished to rid their religion of all Catholic influence. 2

    Early in the seventeenth century, groups of Puritans began leaving Europe to travel to the American colonies. The New England region became the center for Puritans, but the group was spread throughout the area north of Virginia. The main goal of these immigrants was to form a religious community in which their "pure" ideals could be central. The radical beliefs of the Puritans flourished in the New World. By keeping a strong connection between Church and State, the Puritans were able to control most of the colonies' activity until the end of the seventeenth century. 3

    The Puritans held five basic beliefs.

Total Depravity: By virtue of the original sin of Adam, when one is born, he has no right to salvation.
Unconditional Election: Some are chosen for salvation, some are not. There is nothing one can do to change his status.
Limited Atonement: The extent to which one can please God with acts is limited.
Irresistable Grace: God showers one with a quality of grace, and one cannot resist it.
Perseverance: Once one has been saved, nothing he does will change that fact.
These central beliefs, along with an extreme emphasis on preaching and the laws contained within the Bible itself formed the strict ideals of American Puritanism.

III. Background on Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts

    Like all Puritans, the residents of Salem Village believed in witches and in witchcraft. They believed that witchcraft was "entering into a compact with the devil in exchange for certain powers to do evil." 4 Witchcraft was considered both a sin and a crime, since it used the devil's power to perform cruel acts against others. Because of the severity of the accusation of witchcraft, each case involving suspected witchcraft had to be carefully and thoroughly investigated.

    Early in 1692, the witch hunt hysteria began in Salem, Massachusetts. Reverend Samuel Parris' daughter and Abigail Williams started having fits of convulsion, screaming, and hallucination. A doctor examined the girls and decided that the only explanation for these wild spells was witchcraft. The girls then pointed their fingers at Tituba (a Parris family slave), Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne as the witches who had afflicted them. Cotton Mather had recently published his Memorable Providences. This book detailed witchcraft and the symptoms of the afflicted. Since Betty Parris' fits were much like those described in Mather's book, the Puritans of Salem were very accepting of the doctor's conclusion and the resulting accusations.

    Magistrates John Hawthorne and Jonathan Corwin inherited the responsibility of examining the three accused women. On March 1, 1692 the two began questioning the women. They asked each woman the same questions: Are you a witch? Have you seen the devil? How do you explain the afflictions of these girls? Based on this line of questioning, it is clear that the magistrates and all of Salem had already judged the three women guilty. 5 After initially maintaining her innocence, Tituba eventually confessed to being a witch and claimed that she, Good, and Osborne had all made pacts with the devil and had even flown through the air on poles. Tituba's confession showed Salem that their suspicions were valid. For the next year the villagers, fueled by their paranoia and hysteria, searched for witches amongst themselves tirelessly.

    In the following months, many more were accused of witchcraft. Martha Corey, Bridget Williams, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Cloyce, and Mary Eastick all faced charges of witchery. Overloaded with all the new trials, Governor William Phips created a special court to hear the witch cases. The court was known as the Court of Oyer and Terminer. The trials quickly spiraled out of control, and a number of suspected witches were convicted and hanged. Bridget Bishop, Rebecca Nurse, and John Proctor all died as convicted witches. Those who stood trial for the crime of witchcraft could be convicted based on gossip or hearsay. Practically the only way to avoid execution was to admit to being a witch. During 1692, nineteen people refused to confess and died as a result.

    While the specific trials of 1692 are important to America's history, the impact of the Salem Witch Trials is deeper than the simple chronology of events. The hysteria that snowballed in Salem reveals how deep the belief in the supernatural ran in colonial America. David Hall noted that "The religion of the colonists was infused with ancient attitudes and practices, some indeed so old as to antedate the rise of Christianity." 6 In the quest for spiritual perfection and religious purity, there was no place for magic. The Puritans were so focused on the goal of a pure, religious commonwealth, that they reacted harshly against anything that threatened that goal. Richard Godbeer agrees. "Magic had no place in their vision of New England and so they were appalled to discover that colonists were using magical techniques." 7

  1. IV. Background on Witch Trials in Europe

      As early as 1450, and even before, there is evidence of witch hunts in all parts of Europe. The first known incidents of modern witch hunts involved the extermination of all females of certain villages. An event of this nature occurred in the 12th century in Russia. All the women of the village were taken from their homes and executed as witches. Similarly, in 1492 in Lagendorf, all but two women of a small village were accused of witchcraft. 8

    Witch hunts also existed as a part of politics. As early as the 14th century, the devil was considered a political enemy of the state. 9 Witchcraft involved making pacts with the devil. Witches swore their allegiance to him rather than to the king. In addition to this political aspect, false accusations of witchcraft also made up an important element of European witch hunts. People were forced by government officials to accuse people, often innocent people, of practicing witchcraft. The following passage describes the thoughts of Johannes Junius, a man accused of witchcraft in 1628. 10

    "Dear Child, 6 have confessed against me at once: the chancellor, his son, Neudecker, Zaner, Hoffmaisters Ursel, and Hoppfen Else- all false through compulsion, as they have all told me, and begged my forgiveness in God's name before they were executed...They know nothing but good of me. They were forced to say it, just as I myself was."

    In Europe, the popular view of women was the source of witch hunt hysteria. Women were seen as inherently evil and sexual, and therefore possible targets for the devil. There were strong ties between the idea of witchcraft and sexuality. If a woman did not exhibit purity and innocence, she revealed her connection with evil. 11 In this way, witchcraft in Europe was in a way a sexual crime. The book Malleus Maleficarum became the guidebook for prosecuting witches in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It too emphasized the sexual nature of witchcraft. This work by Pope Innocent VIII told stories of men losing their genitalia and consulting with female witches for treatment. It also explained why women were more likely to become witches.

    "Because the female sex is more concerned with things of the flesh than men; because being formed from a man's rib, they are only 'imperfect animals' and 'crooked' whereas man belongs to a priveleged sex from whose midst Christ emerged." 12

    When Puritan settlers came to the colonies in America, they brought their preexisting ideas about women and magic with them. The ancient fear of contact with the devil and sexual deviance made witchcraft a sensitive spot for Europeans, including the Puritans. Deeply embedded fears led to the paranoia which provoked witch hunts on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe and in the colonies one accusation turned into many, and one trial became an unremitting hunt.

V. Chronology of the Salem Witch Trials 13

Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams begin to scream and convulse uncontrollably.
Physicians conclude that the influence of Satan is responsible for the girls' strange behavior.
Late February
The afflicted girls name Tituba (a slave of the Parris family), Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne as witches.
March 1:
Tituba confesses to practicing witchcraft.
Other townspeople begin accusing many different people of witchcraft.
March 19:
Rebecca Nurse is denounced as a witch.
March 28:
Elizabeth Proctor is denounced as a witch.
April 19:
Abigail Hobbs, Bridget Bishop, Giles Corey, and Mary Warren are all examined. Only Abigail Hobbs confesses.
May 10:
George Jacobs, Sr. and his granddaughter Margaret are examined. Margaret confesses that both she and her grandfather were witches.
May 14:
Increase Mather returns from England.
May 27:
Governor Phips sets up a special Court of Oyer and Terminer to try the witchcraft cases. The judgments are based on various kinds of intangible evidence, including supernatural attributes.
June 2:
First session of Court of Oyer and Terminer occurs. Bridget Bishop is the first suspect to be pronounced guilty and condemned to death.
June 10:
Bridget Bishop is hanged in Salem in the first official execution of the Salem trials.
The Andover witch hunt begins.
July 19: Rebecca Nurse and Sarah Good are executed.
August 2-6:
John and Elizabeth Proctor are tried and condemned.
October 8:
After the executions of 20 people, Thomas Brattle writes a letter of criticism to Governor Phips. Phips orders that reliance on intangible evidence is banned.
October 29:
Governor Phips ends the Court of Oyer and Terminer.
November 25:
The Superior Court is created to try the rest of the witchcraft cases in May, 1693. No one is convicted in these trials.

Links to Salem Witch Trial Web Sites

    Puritanism Websites

    Puritanism in New England
    The origins of Puritanism, as well as the religion's main values. This site also includes descriptions of the Puritan church's policy of membership.

    The Character of an Old English Puritan
    This site provides a document which describes the ideal Puritan of Colonial America.

    This is a great website with general information about Puritanism. It also makes distinctions between English and American Puritans.

    European Witch Trial Websites

    The Witch Trials
    The European origins of witch hunts began as early as the 14th century. This site explores the history of these European persecutions, and explains the reasons for such suspicions.

    Witch Hunts
    This site takes a detailed look at the European witch trials and explains the social effects of the hysteria.

    European Witch Hunts
    A detailed description of the roots of the witch trials which even spread to the Americas by the seventeenth century.

    The Witch Hunts: The End of Magic and Miracles
    This portion of a book called The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerbe explains the religious aspects of the witch trials in Europe.

    Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts
    This site tries to explain why the "witchcraze" began in Europe. It also describes how suspected witches were characterized and investigated.

    European Witch Hunts
    The European witch hunts were deeply rooted in the fears Europeans had of women and the sexuality of women. This site aims to describe the origins of the suspicions surrounding women and to explain the traumatic persecution to which many women were subjected.

    Misconceptions About the Great Witch Hunt
    This site takes a closer look at the common misunderstandings of the facts of the burning era of the European witch hunts and seeks to explain the truth about this period.

    Salem Trial Websites

    Witchcraft in Salem Village
    This site is designed to give a general, accurate overview of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.

    The Salem Witch Trials of 1692: A Chronology of Events
    This website lists a chronology of the most important events surrounding the Salem Witch Trials. It begins in late January of 1692, and carries us through the end of the hysteria in late November of that same year.

    Famous American Trials: Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692
    This site provides an account of the events of 1692. It also provides links to important documents involved in the trials.

    The Salem Witch Trials
    This is a great website listing those accused of witchcraft in Salem, giving a timeline of the events, and providing transcripts of the trials themselves.

    Historical Text Archive: Salem Witch Trials
    A simple overview of the facts of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

    Salem Witch Museum Website
    This is the homepage for the Salem Witch Museum. It gives a brief summary of the trials, shows pictures of landmarks in Salem, and provides information for visitors.

    Witchcraft in Salem: Intersections of Religion and Society
    This website gives a very brief overview of the witch trials, and it also offers a brief discussion of the debates between historians about the causes for the witch hunt.

    American Fanaticism
    This site focuses on portions from an article written by Paul Johnson which was printed in October, 1991 in The Spectator.

VI. Bibliography


Boyer, Paul S. and Stephen Nissenbaum. 1976.
Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Godbeer, Richard. 1994.
The Devil's Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England . New York: Cambridge University Press.
Hill, Frances. 1997.
A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. Da Capo Press.
Hutton, Ronald. 2000.
The Triumph of the Moon . New York: Oxford University Press.
Kallen, Stuart A. 1999.
The Salem Witch Trials. Lucent Books.
Levack, Brian P., ed. 1992.
Witch-Hunting in Continental Europe: Regional and Local Studies.
Midelfort, H. Erik. 1972.
Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany, 1562-1684: The Social and Intellectual Foundations .
Rinaldi, Ann. 1994.
A Break With Charity : A Story About the Salem Witch Trials . Gary Dean Gullickson
Rosenthal, Bernard. 1995.
Salem Story : Reading the Witch Trials of 1692 . New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sebald, Hans. 1995.
Witch Children: From Salem Witch-Hunts to Modern Courtrooms . Prometheus Books.
Starkey, Marion L. 1990
Devil in Massachusetts : A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. Peter Smith Publisher.


Days of Judgement: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
Produced and written by Robert J. Tarutis. Distributed by The Peabody and Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. (59 minutes)
Rediscovering America: The Salem Witch Trials.
Produced and distributed by The Discovery Channel. (30 minutes)
Witch City.
Written, directed, and edited by Joe Cultrera, Henry Ferrini, Philip Lamy, Bob Quinn, Joe Stanton, May Liao. First screened in Salem in 1992. (60 minutes)

VII. References

  1. Campbell, Donna M. Puritanism in New England. (
  2. Bowden, Henry Warner.Puritanism. (
  3. Bowden, Henry Warner.Puritanism. (
  4. Sutter, Tim. Salem Witchcraft. (
  5. Linder, Douglas. An Account of Events in Salem. (
  6. Hall, David H. Worlds of Wonders, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England, p. 99.
  7. Godbeer, Richard. The Devil's Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England, p. 30.
  8. The Witch Hunts. (
  9. The Witch Hunts. (
  10. Junius, Johannes. Part of a letter found in European Witchcraft, E. William Monter, p. 85.
  11. Reasons Behind the Witch Hunts. (
  12. Nigg, Walter. The Heretics, p. 277.
  13. The Salem Witch Trials 1692: A Chronology of Events. (

Created by Ashley E. Lowman
For Soc 257: New Religious Movements
University of Virginia
Spring Term, 2000
Last modified: 03/02/01